Like many podcast creators, you will undoubtedly want to make your show more appealing by adding some cool music in the intro/outro, or something atmospheric in the background of your main content. These are great ideas, and with the right audio tracks, you're bound to make your show more popular.
However, there are good ways and bad ways of doing this, so we've laid out our answers to common questions, and some suggestions on where to find music you can use in your podcast episodes.
Can I use copyrighted music in my podcast?
First, the big one. This is the most common question we get asked, and almost every podcaster has considered at some point whether they're allowed to use copyrighted or commercial music in their show.
The short and simple answer:
If it's copyright-protected music, you'll need to buy the license to use it legally.
Can I use music with the permission of the artist?
In most cases, the artist can't give this permission because they've signed agreements with record companies and publishers, and those are the organizations you'd need to approach for the correct license. The exception here is if they're a small or relatively unknown artist, maybe even a friend, who is happy for you to use their music and benefit from the extra exposure. What's important is to find out if they've signed a contract with anyone for their music or else the same rules as other copyright-protected content may apply.
If you choose to follow this route, make sure to get their permission very clearly in writing to avoid any misunderstandings or issues in the future.
Can I use music in my podcast if I credit the artist?
Crediting the artist of copyright music doesn't circumvent any licensing rules so the short answer is 'no'.
What about under 30 seconds of music?
There are many rumors and myths spread about being able to use copyright-protected content so long as it's under 30 seconds, less than 10 seconds, or 7 seconds... none of them are true. Using a short clip of a few seconds is still not allowed unless you paid for a license to use the music.
What if I remix or record my own version of the song?
Again, there are a lot of untrue rumors that if a clip is taken and remixed, changed in some way, or (if you have the talent and the time) you record your own version, it can be used freely on your podcast. This one is a little more complex, but the short answer is it's still too easy to break copyright laws trying to do this.
Unless you have the appropriate license to use the audio, we recommend staying on the side of caution and not doing this unless you have done a serious amount of research and consulted experts about your exact intended use case.
Can I use music in my podcast under Fair Use?
Fair use is a complex and often misunderstood concept, and just because you believe your case to fall under Fair Use doesn't make it so. There is no single measurable factor to decide what's fair use, and it's a subject worth researching all by itself. Potentially, if you're willing to do careful research and possibly pay for legal advice about Fair Use, your case might be okay... but if you've just skimmed a few online articles or are relying on what friends and other podcasters have told you... then the short and safe answer is again "no, it's not worth the risk".
What happens if I ignore the rules?
You could potentially be sued for damages, including any earnings a court thinks you've wrongfully made by using the licensed music. Depending on the view of the judge, this could be all of the earnings from your podcast, and the damages could potentially be taken from your personal savings and assets, not something you want to worry about when making a podcast! 😅
Can I use copyrighted music if my podcast doesn't make any money?
The answer is still no, even if your podcast is not a commercial venture, even if it makes no money. You should also think about whether the podcast could ever make money in the future, which leads to the next point...
But I know XYZ podcast is using commercial music without a license...
It's hard to know what arrangements other podcast creators have made and what licenses they do or don't have. However, there's no doubt that some flaunt the rules and some are getting away with it (for now).
There are a few reasons for this, one is that it's not possible (yet) to police every single podcast out there, but automated software to detect copyright material in shows is getting faster and better so that may only be a matter of time.
Another reason some will get away with it is just down to numbers, that is, the show might simply be too small with too few downloads for anyone to bother coming after the creator. What can happen in these cases is, over time, the show grows eventually reaching large listening numbers, and the license owners (and their lawyers) decide it's now time to take notice and sue for damages. The podcast may have even been on their radar for a while, and they just decided to take action when it became financially profitable for them to do so.
Here's a great example of the lawyers coming after a podcast several years after they started using copyright-protected content.
What to avoid when looking for music for your podcast:
Only use copyright-protected music when you have the correct licenses. Permission from the artist or crediting the artist in your work normally won't help.
Using short snippets of a few seconds. remixing, or re-recording your own version is not okay. Fair use is a complex topic that you should research very carefully and consider legal advice if you plan to rely on it.
Copyright applies even if your show makes no money. Ignoring the rules could land you in serious (and expensive) legal trouble, so don't assume something is okay just because other podcast creators are doing it.
So what music can I use legally in my podcast?
These are the main ways to make sure you're allowed to use the music you've chosen:
- Buy the rights to the music. This may be overly complicated and expensive, especially with popular songs)
- Write and compose the music yourself. If you have the talent, go for it!
- Get written permission from a friend or relatively unknown artist to use their music. It's important that their music is non-commercial and they haven't signed contracts giving away their control over rights of use.
- Use royalty-free music, which can be much cheaper, and even (potentially) free.
Don't worry, it's not all bad news! The obvious choice for most people is using royalty-free music, and thankfully, there are a lot of great resources out there for both paid and free royalty-free music, so long as you're realistic and don't expect to use the latest number-one hit on your show for a few dollars.
Is Royalty-Free music really free, or do I need to pay?
Royalty-free doesn't mean free to use or zero cost. Some royalty-free music is free and some is paid for, but just as with all copyright-protected music that's down to the choice of the license holders. The main difference with royalty-free is that there are no ongoing payments or royalties after the initial purchase.
Instead, you'll pay a one-off fee either for the piece of music, or a subscription fee for access to a music library where you can select from a range of music. A part of this fee will likely go to the artist or license holder in place of paying regular royalties, and sometimes the artist or license holder has waived all fees for ongoing use of the music.
What's important is that using royalty-free music is often an affordable way to get some great music into your podcast without worrying about someone chasing you down in the courts years after you'd forgotten you'd even used it.
Where can I get royalty-free music?
Here are a few resources to get you started. Some offer free music, some are paid, and some are a mix of both. In each case make sure to read the guidelines to find out if you need to give credit to the artist or do anything else to be legally okay:
We recommend sticking to royalty-free music as the most legally safe type of audio for your show.
A good way to do this is to find a reputable site and pay a one-off or monthly fee for access to tracks.
Not legal advice: Although we've outlined some common legal issues, none of this is legal advice. If you need legal advice about podcast music please seek out an experienced music industry or podcasting lawyer.